It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)
September 9, 2008
I hope that if I am alive and present for the End Of Days or the Apocalypse or Ragnarok or the Final Crisis Of Man or whatever you want to call it, that no matter how awful and gruesome it gets, it would at least be heralded by the four opening drum rolls of “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine).”
True to its title, “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” feels simultaneously frantic and carefree, with its rapid-fire vocals and brisk tempo offset by some exceptionally crisp guitar parts, and a fairly relaxed harmony vocal that confronts what seems to be an imminent global catastrophe with a cool, deapan remark: “It’s time I had some time alone.” Maybe it’s best to take the song as a sort of default state of mind for living in a world that seems to be in a state of perpetual crisis, and from any number of perspectives always seems to be moving in the wrong direction. Crucially, the band are not singing about The End of the World, but rather the end of the world that we know, which is much more accurate and reflective of the shifting contexts that shape our understanding of the overwhelming number of things that happen on the planet every moment of every day. You can blame the media for “information overload,” but if anything, the media pares down what we could see and know into something more manageable. The song takes in just a bit of what is going on around the singer and what is inside the singer’s head, and the result is a bit of panic, a bit of resignation, and a bit of contentment. There’s a sense of scale in the lyrics, in which the significance and relative insignificance of things are weighed against one another, and it all comes out feeling equal. Everything matters, and nothing matters. It’s fine.
In the final verse, Michael Stipe describes a dream that he’s had about being at a party where everyone in the room is a famous person with the initials L.B. It’s silly and weird, and it’s a non sequitur in a song full of non sequiturs, but it’s perhaps the most memorable part, and provides its best shout-along moment: “Leonard Bernstein!” In the context of the song, it’s a colorful moment that captures the imagination with extremely specific language, but in the context of the band’s career, it’s one more example of Stipe delving into his unconscious mind for an impression of the world skewed by the imperfect way the human brain processes and categorizes information. In an old interview, Stipe expressed a bit of concern about why some corner of his mind could automatically offer up a list of famous men with the same initials, or why that sort of scenario could come up at all, but really, that’s just part of the beauty of the mind, and of dreaming. I reckon that if there’s any reason he has written about dreams on every record of his career, it’s because they provide our only direct path to the mysterious workings of our own minds, and the baffling pile-up of information, memories, traumas, received wisdom, and images that somehow add up to inform our perspective on the world, and form the basis of our identities.